Thomas Foods International fire burns into second day

Thomas Foods International fire, Murray Bridge | VIDEO, PHOTOS

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Updated 2:50PM: The meat works' recently upgraded boning room has been destroyed and other areas damaged.

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Updated 2:50PM Thursday:

Thomas Foods International has thanked the State’s emergency service crews for their rapid response and outstanding efforts in helping contain the fire at Murray Bridge processing facilities at a press conference in Adelaide this afternoon.

All staff on site at the time of the fire were evacuated safely and promptly, and management acted swiftly to ensure all livestock were safely relocated.

Thomas Foods International chief executive Darren Thomas said he was heartened by the large number of messages of support received from the local community, customers and industry.

“We’re currently assessing the damage caused by the fire and it’s still too early to tell the full extent.

“The safety and wellbeing of all our staff is our highest priority.

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“Staff will not be returning to the site until it has been declared completely safe to do so. Our management is working closely with the relevant authorities in that regard and we are keeping all our staff notified. The company will continue to stand by and support our staff including providing access to counselling services.

“Our company has already begun making alternative processing arrangements across our group operations and networks to continue to manage our customer requirements.

”Once we have a full understanding of the nature of the damage we will begin planning the necessary repair work to ensure the site is back to capacity in processing the highest quality Australian meat for our national and export markets as soon as possible.”

12.30pm Thursday

As the smoke begins to clear, the damage dealt by the Thomas Foods fire is becoming evident.

The Standard understands the fire destroyed the meat works' boning room, recently part of a multi-million dollar upgrade, and much of its storage area.

However, its slaughter floors and lairages, or stock loading areas, remain intact.

All the animals in the facility at the time were evacuated safely.

Fire is still raging in the basement of one building, containing cardboard boxes and storage crates.

Excavators will be brought in this afternoon to open up enough room for firefighters to apply expanding foam and try to put out the flames.

Parts of a Besser brick building are still at risk of collapse.

Firefighters are using laser monitoring devices to keep an eye on any movement of the walls, and an exclusion zone is in place all around.

Firefighters have also had to deal with ammonia leaks, which have now been contained.

Emergency Services Minister Chris Picton said the response from fire crews was swift and that they had done an amazing job at somewhat limiting the damage to the abattoir.

“Without the outstanding work of the crews who worked tirelessly to control it, this fire could have been a lot worse than it already was,” he said.

He said flaming plastic and cardboard were still limiting access.

“It is still a very dangerous site and we won’t know the full extent of the damage until the investigators can get to begin their investigation,” he said.

“Even not knowing the full extent yet, this will be substantial damage to the operation.”

While still a tragic event, Mr Picton was “beyond relieved” that there were no reported injuries. 

“The luckiest thing is that no one was harmed or killed in what really was a huge fire,” he said.

10am Thursday

As the sun rose above Murray Bridge this morning, dozens of firefighters were still containing the fire which ripped through Thomas Foods International’s meat works last night.

About 20 were on the scene early on, but a Metropolitan Fire Service spokeswoman said reinforcements had been called for as the threat continued.

“While it’s contained there have been flare-ups which we’re expecting to continue this morning,” she said.

“It’s in the basement area of the facility at the moment.”

She confirmed that most of the meat works had been saved, but that the area impacted by the fire had taken significant damage at a likely cost of tens of millions of dollars.

A hundred firefighters from 13 MFS and 11 Country Fire Service units were involved in the fire fight at its peak last night.

SA Police officers controlled traffic and kept the public at a safe distance, paramedics from the SA Ambulance Service monitored firefighters’ health throughout the night, and the Salvation Army delivered meals to weary personnel.

Investigators will inspect the scene and speak with witnesses later today, once the danger from the fire has passed.

In a new warning message issued just after 7am, the MFS advised residents – especially those with respiratory issues – to close their doors and windows until the smoke passed.

11.30pm Wednesday

Murray Bridge's biggest employer has had one of its darkest days.

Thomas Foods International's meat works were heavily damaged by fire tonight, January 3.

All employees were safely and quickly evacuated, but the factory's largest building was destroyed at a cost which will likely run into the millions of dollars.

The company issued a statement just after 10pm, saying the cause of the fire and extent of the damage were yet to be determined.

"While this is being assessed, the company is making alternative processing arrangements to meet our customer requirements," it said.

The Murray Bridge abattoir is TFI's largest, but it has smaller facilities at Lobethal; Tamworth, New South Wales; and Wallangarra, Queensland.

The local facility’s production lines will be closed for Thursday at least, and only senior managers and office staff will be required on site; the company will contact other employees in the morning.

SA Police advised that the fire had been contained to the one building, but that extensive damage had been caused.

Investigators will visit the premises in the morning.

The Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) advised that the threat to public safety from the fire had passed by 10.30pm, but police suggested keeping doors and windows closed to shut out any smoke.

At least 80 MFS and Country Fire Service firefighters from 25 units are estimated to have been involved in the fight.

They were still monitoring the scene at 10.30pm, and SA Police said they would remain throughout the night.

Lagoon and Nilpena Roads also remained closed.

It is not yet clear what impact the fire will have on the company's hundreds of employees, a mix of locals and migrants on skilled work visas.

TFI is Australia's largest family-owned meat processing company, with an annual revenue in excess of $1 billion.

Help us tell this story

Did you experience the evacuation of the meat works?

Do you know which buildings were damaged in the fire?

Did you take any photos or videos at the scene?

Email peri.strathearn@fairfaxmedia.com.au or message The Standard’s Facebook page.

8pm Wednesday

Firefighters are tackling a significant blaze at Thomas Foods International, Murray Bridge.

Smoke and flames are pouring out of the largest building at the meat works, and dozens of MFS and CFS officers are combating them as police ward off a growing crowd of onlookers.

The fire has reached a fifth alarm, which an MFS spokeswoman said indicated it was “quite significant”.

The MFS has issued a warning message for residents of Northern Heights and surrounding suburbs, advising that smoke is drifting across the area – as almost anyone in that area would have noticed.

The MFS will issue further advice by 11pm.

For up-to-the minute information, visit www.mfs.sa.gov.au.

Murray Valley Standard.

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